How Susan Saldanha is empowering other women on campus

Content warning: this article discusses sexual harm.

“We, as women, have the right to make decisions about our sexuality and sexual health and we have the right to resist and fight back when we believe that our sexual integrity has been threatened. No one has the right to touch us without our consent.”Susan Saldanha, La Trobe graduate and Flip the Script facilitator

During her time as a student at La Trobe, Susan Saldanha was an advocate for sexual and mental health on campus.

You might have taken part in some of the initiatives she led as the 2019 La Trobe Public Health Students’ Association President. There were free pilates classes, succulent pot-planting sessions, crafternoons, free contraception walls to promote sexual health, and sessions on family planning and contraceptive health throughout the year.

All of these initiatives gave Susan a better understanding of the experiences of women in her community.

“I am very passionate about women’s sexual health and rights and desire to empower other women to achieve their individual potential,” she says. “Most women are not aware of the options available to them and the many ways that they can take control of their own sexual health.”

While studying a Bachelor of Commerce/ Bachelor of Health Sciences, Susan wanted to be part of the change and help to create a safer environment at the University.

She jumped at the chance to become a Flip the Script facilitator – the opportunity to equip and empower young women within the University community who may face sexual harm.

Busting myths about sexual harm

One in five young women will experience attempted or completed rape while in university. The fault always lies with the perpetrator, never the survivor – a message that’s reinforced throughout the Flip the Script program as it debunks rape myths that blame women for sexual assault.

“People may have misconceptions about women having to try to avoid situations or having to take responsibility for resisting,” says Susan, who stresses that’s not what the program is about. “We’re giving them the tools, helping them to acknowledge their rights and identify threats to their bodily integrity.”

The program is based on feminist and social psychological theory and practices to help women identify risk cues for sexual coercion, understand common responses to sexual assault and the most effective methods for resistance. However, the main message in the program is that all survival is resistance, it doesn’t tell women what not to do.

“We usually take precautions to defend ourselves from strangers, but unfortunately people who try to coerce us are people we wouldn’t have expected – for example, our boyfriend, co-worker, or a close friend,” Susan says, as evidence shows women are at greatest risk of sexual assault from men they know.

Flip the Script’s evidence-based approach

La Trobe has embraced Flip the Script as part of a comprehensive strategy to address sexual harm on our campuses. Other programs and initiatives include Respect at La Trobe, bystander action workshops, men’s programs such as Tomorrow Man, Respectful Relationships training, the University’s Safer Community service and more from La Trobe’s Health and Wellbeing team.

Major societal interventions are needed to prevent sexual assaults from occurring, but societal change takes time. Flip the Script has been designed to help fill a gap.

The program has also been implemented at Monash University, but has its origins in Canada. It was developed using evidence-based research and is currently the only program available to have been evaluated in a clinical trial and shown to significantly reduce the incidence of rape and other forms of sexual assault for at least one year (Senn et al., 2015).

An evaluation showed that for women who completed the program, it reduced woman-blaming attitudes and lowered self-blame in those who were subsequently sexually assaulted (Senn et al., 2017).

While it’s recognised that gender is not binary, and anyone can be a victim or perpetrator of sexual assault, research shows that sexual assault is primarily a ‘gendered’ crime. More than 90% of sexual assault victims are women, and over 90% of sexual assault perpetrators are men. The program is therefore based on this underlying theory and research.

Giving women the tools to take control

To become a student Flip the Script facilitator, Susan undertook intensive training over an eight day period. She spent time going through the theory underpinning the program, and undertook two days of self defense training.

“As women, we are expected to be ‘nice’ and we might also think that we are incapable of physically defending ourselves,” she said. “Completing the training has made me realise that you do not require years of weight training or professional fighting to be able to protect yourself. In a situation where you have to defend your bodily integrity, you have the strength to do it and in the program we teach realistic strategies and techniques that every woman can use.

“Every woman reacts differently in a threatening situation. No one knows better than them what they are capable of and they are the best judge to decide what they need to do to protect themselves. The program provides women with the largest possible toolbox of options from which to choose to defend their safety.”

The workshops are free for La Trobe students, primarily designed for women up to the age of 24 years. While the content can be heavy, the environment within the room is light-hearted.

“One of the best parts is the relationships and sexuality unit. I wish that it had been taught to me in high school. It really opens your mind to what your sexuality is, and what you do and don’t want out of your relationships. It’s a fun unit that ‘flips the script’ on patriarchal notions of men’s and women’s sexual needs, desires and perceptions of ‘normal’ heterosexual practice.

“We’re trying to create a community of women who can come together, share stories, knowledge, skills and experiences and be a sisterhood. That’s what we want to achieve. It’s not just four days of training, it’s something that can carry on into the future.”

Find support

If this issue has raised issues for you, there is support available. If you or someone you know has been the victim of inappropriate behaviour and would like support, you can contact:

Safer Community

Safer Community is a free and confidential service for students who experience or witness unacceptable or concerning behaviour.

Safter Community staff can provide you advice, support or help you report an incident to police or other authorities.

Phone 03 9479 8999, email or submit the online reporting form here.

Please note: Safer Community is not an emergency or critical response service, and reports, emails and voicemails are not reviewed outside of operating hours. For afterhours assistance please contact the La Trobe Crisis Line on 1300 146 307 or text 0488 884 100 or Security on campus at 9479 2222. 

Northern Centre Against Sexual Assault (for students at Melbourne)

NCASA are specialist counsellors for people who have experienced sexual assault. Call their counselling line on 03 9496 2240.

There is also a NCASA worker that operates out of the La Trobe Counselling department once a week so it easy for students to access her.

They’ll also be able to connect regional students with their closest Centre Against Sexual Assault.

For after-hours help, call 1800 806 292.

1800RESPECT (1800 737 732)

A 24-hour helpline offering support to support impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse.

In an emergency, dial 000.